Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Spence Publishing

My friends over at Spence Publishing are having a summer sale: From July 1 to July 7, two-thirds of their books will be $5 to $10.

Bush in the Early 1970s

Since some blogs are still pushing the "BUSH WAS AWOL!" line of thinking, I thought I'd dig around on LEXIS to see if there were any additional stories on what Bush was doing in the early 1970s.

I'm still intrigued -- but not nearly convinced -- by my own theory that he might have been doing something for the CIA in some capacity. As you can see from the various quotes below, Bush took a job in 1971 at a company called Stratford in Houston. His job has been reported as involving: (1) flying planes to Florida to investigate plant nurseries, (2) flying to Guatemala, (3) doing something (I don't know what) with chicken manure fertilizer, (4) analyzing expansion possibilities for the chicken and egg business; (5) investigating the purchase of a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania, and (6) management training. Quite a diverse experience, I'd say.

Moreover, his boss at Stratford -- Robert Gow -- had previously headed up George H. W. Bush's company Zapata Oil, which according to Kevin Phillips had been involved with the CIA's Bay of Pigs operation, which (by coincidence?) was titled "Operation Zapata."

Now Bush's Stratford job could have been entirely what it seems (i.e., Bush's father asked an old friend to hire him for a summer). Still, the varying stories of his job duties, as well as the fact that Bush flew to Guatemala, indicates at least the possibility that something else might have been going on there.

Plus, there are the following facts, to review from my earlier posts on this:
  • Bush's longtime friend James Bath inexplicably missed the same physical exam while in the same National Guard unit, according to Salon. Salon also reported that Bath was probably involved with the CIA himself.

  • Bath had worked since 1968 for Atlantic Aviation, which was owned by a family that did "classified military work for the Government and for the C.I.A.," and that "employ[ed] officials formerly affiliated with the C.I.A." This was reported by the New York Times in 1983.

  • According to the UPI in 1984: "At the height of the Vietnam War, according to a Senate report, the CIA operated airlines worth more than $50 million with 8,000 employees."

  • Bush himself later worked at an Alaskan airline that admitted to the New York Times that it flew for the CIA.

  • George H.W. Bush soon became head of the CIA.
What does this all prove? Nothing. But it's fun to speculate that Bush might have been involved with the CIA in some capacity. It would explain why he would have given less than full attention to his National Guard unit, but could not talk about what he was really doing.

Anyway, here are the quotes that turn up on LEXIS:

Jo Thomas, "George Bush's Journey: A Man Adrift," New York Times, July 22, 2000, p. A1.

* * * Robert H. Gow, a colleague of Mr. Bush's father, who hired young George W. in early 1971 to work at his agricultural and horticultural conglomerate, Stratford of Houston, remembered him as "a presentable, attractive young college student."

"I've heard all this about a wild youth, but I never saw it," he said. "He was wearing a Brooks Brothers suit. He showed up on time and worked well past five, as we all did." Mr. Bush was assigned to research small nurseries that Mr. Gow hoped to acquire, a job that occasionally took him to Central America. His new boss had been an executive at the elder Bush's Zapata Oil Company and a guest at the Bush home. He gave his young employee a friendly ear.

"George liked to talk," Mr. Gow said. "He was searching for what to do. He was constantly wanting to talk about what to do with his life."

* * *
In the fall of 1971, after a year of work at Stratford, Mr. Bush quit and was unemployed for the next five or six months. In an interview he said he spent the time flying with the Air National Guard. He was 25.
Note that Robert Gow was a former member of Skull and Bones. As Atlantic Monthly reported in 2000:
Alexandra Robbins, George W., Knight of Eulogia, Atlantic Monthly, May 1, 2000:

Yet Skull and Bones was not relegated entirely to George W.'s past after he graduated. In 1971, having been rejected by the University of Texas Law School and needing a job, Bush called a Bonesman, Robert H. Gow. Gow, who later told The Washington Post that his Houston-based agricultural company had not been looking for anyone at the time, hired Bush as a management trainee.
Here's what U.S. News recently reported about that time period:
Kenneth T. Walsh, Dan Gilgoff, Nancy L. Bentrup, "From Boys to Men," U.S. News & World Report, May 3, 2004, p. 32.

* * * Being at loose ends, at the time, seemed to suit Bush just fine. His application to the University of Texas School of Law had been rejected, and he wasn't particularly thrilled with his new job, as a trainee at an agriculture conglomerate called Stratford of Texas. The company's founder, Robert Gow, had been an executive at the elder Bush's oil company. "Bush was wrestling in his mind with how he could get ahead in life," says Gow. "He had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do. He was confused."

He wasn't lazy, though. He showed up for work each morning at 8 o'clock sharp in a Brooks Brothers suit and cheerfully completed his assignments on time. Not that the work was taxing. Bush had to fly around the country and go down to Central America to inspect plant nurseries Stratford was looking to buy. The young man occasionally would knock on Gow's office door wanting to talk about his future, unsure whether it was business, politics, or what Gow calls the "do-gooder-type stuff," like working with disadvantaged youth. Gow, who had been president of the elder Bush's Zapata oil company, noticed that the younger Bush shared some of his father's qualities, like a knack for remembering names. But there were differences, too. The younger Bush, Gow recalls, "wasn't one of those people who you said, 'Boy, whatever he does, he's going to be a big success.' "
And here's what the Washington Post said in 1999:
George Lardner Jr. and Lois Romano, "At Height of Vietnam, Bush Picks Guard," Washington Post, July 28, 1999, p. A1.
* * *
Bush called Robert H. Gow, a Yale man who had roomed with the senior Bush's cousin Ray in college and who had been an executive at the senior Bush's Zapata Off-Shore Co. In 1969, Gow left Zapata and started Stratford of Texas, a Houston-based agricultural company with diverse interests: from cattle to chickens to indoor, non-blooming tropical plants.

"We weren't looking for someone, but I thought this would be a talented guy we should hire, and he was available," Gow said. In early 1971, Gow gave Bush a job as a management trainee. He was required to wear a coat and tie and dispatched around the country and even to Central America, looking for plant nurseries that Stratford might acquire. The newly buttoned-down businessman also moved into a garage apartment that he shared with Ensenat off Houston's North Boulevard, an old 1920s neighborhood close to downtown.

"We traveled to all kinds of peculiar places, like Apopka, Florida, which was named the foliage capital of the world," said Peter C. Knudtzon, another Zapata alumnus who was Stratford's executive vice president and Bush's immediate boss.

Once or twice a month, Bush would announce that he had flight duty and off he would go, sometimes taking his F-102 from Houston to Orlando and back. "It was really quite amazing," Knudtzon said. "Here was this young guy making acquisitions of tropical plants and then up and leaving to fly fighter planes."
By the way, Peter Knudtzon apparently still operates or owns a greenhouse in Apopka, Florida, according to this Florida state certification (PDF) or this directory of nurseries.

Interestingly, Jeb Bush worked for the same company at the same time. Apparently his job had nothing to do with flying to Florida or Central America, looking at plant nurseries, chicken manure, management training, or mushroom farms:
Adrienne Lu & Logan D. Mabe, "Humble first job? Don't despair," St. Petersburg Times, May 27, 2003, p. B1.

* * * "The summer after graduating from high school, I worked in Houston for a company called Stratford of Texas," Bush said in an e-mail interview. "I worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., on top of huge cookers which produced ammoniated rice hulls. The final product was used as cattle feed. I lived with my brother (that would be future president George) who made me wash down before going into the apartment. I liked to go to the Astrodome after work to watch the Astros play."
This was apparently at the same time George was there, i.e., 1971. Official biographies state that Jeb Bush was born in 1953, and this site notes that he met his wife while in high school in February 1971. Unless he was a year behind, he probably graduated from high school in 1971, which means he would have worked for Zapata that summer, right when George worked there.

Here's an alternate version of what that job entailed:
Jill Lawrence, "The evolution of George W. Bush," USA Today, July 28, 2000, p. A8.

He ended up at an agricultural conglomerate called Stratford of Texas, run by Robert Gow, a friend of his father. His job involved chicken-manure fertilizer, which gave him material for countless crude jokes.
I haven't seen the reference to chicken manure anywhere else. And here's another varying description of that job:
Kenneth T. Walsh, "The lost years of Al and Dubya," U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 1, 1999, p. 28.
* * *
In early 1971, he began a nine-month stint with Stratford of Texas, an agricultural company owned by his father's friend Robert Gow. George W. was basically a trainee, working on a variety of projects such as looking into the purchase of a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania and analyzing expansion possibilities for Gow's chicken and egg business. Bored, he privately derided his work as "a stupid coat-and-tie job."
Interestingly, Stratford apparently had a "finca" in Guatemala (i.e., a ranch):
Carol Flake Chapman, "Green Acres," Texas Monthly, February 2000, p. 96.

* * * Gow grew up in Massachusetts and studied engineering at Yale, and he still retains the trace of a patrician Yankee accent although he has lived in Texas since 1962. That year he came south to join Zapata Offshore, the oil business then headed by George Bush. He had met Bush through Ray Walker, a cousin of Bush's who was Gow's roommate at Yale. In 1970, after leaving Zapata, Gow started a Houston-based diversified agribusiness company called Stratford of Texas. Before the company folded, its holdings included a large finca in Guatemala where it raised nonflowering tropical plants for export. One of Gow's Houston employees in the early seventies was George W. Bush, whose responsibilities included sizing up plant nurseries for possible acquisition; he stayed for about a year before leaving to join a family friend's political campaign.
Is this when Bush made a trip to Guatemala on "business," as a spokeman non-descriptly stated in 2000? That would tie it all together, as this site claims:
A brief reference appeared in Bill Minutaglio's First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty about a job that had been arranged for Bush in the early 1970s that involved horticultural operations in the United States and Central America. One executive, Peter Knudtzon, said he traveled with Bush to Orlando to check on a nursery and had gone with him on an excursion to Guatemala.
Finally, it is quite interesting to note that Zapata Oil, which was Bush's father's company and which is where the owner of Stratford previously worked, may have been involved with the CIA:
Mary Ann Gwinn, "Author paints troubling portrait of four-generation Bush dynasty," Duluth News Tribune, March 14, 2004.

* * * Phillips presents information that suggests one of Zapata Oil's Mexican subsidiaries was a part-time purchasing front for the CIA during the Bay of Pigs era. George H.W. Bush also initiated the family's business involvements in the Middle East -- Zapata's offshore arm organized a subsidiary to carry out Kuwait's first deep-sea oil drilling in 1961.

New Urbanism

Via Dave Hegeman, here is Christopher Leerssen's article Urban Design in His Kingdom, which takes a Christian look at New Urbanism. Interesting quote:
Consider, on the other hand, the community wrought by a currently popular retail format, the superstore building, also known as a “big box.” (Loosely defined, a big box is a standalone retail building having a floor area of greater than 50,000 square feet.) While the “big box” offers certain economic benefits and practical advantages (low prices, efficient distribution) it taxes our systems in other ways. There are the ecological issues: The big box is predicated on large parking lots that are inefficiently used most of the year . . . except Christmas. The design of these sites hardly ever takes into account preexisting natural features such as streams, fields, ridges, the nuances that cause each place to be distinct. Large expanses of asphalt create urban heat islands and significant pollution—with huge volumes of storm water runoff dumping harmful elements into our streams. Built to last 7-30 years maximum, these structures are essentially disposable. A big box’s location practically mandates the use of an automobile. But all this might be considered an aesthete’s fussiness, mere cultural preferences.

More to the point, maybe, pedestrian access is nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive. And so pedestrian traffic is almost non-existent. What kind of communion is this? (A friend recently described the virtues of being able to rotate from superstore to superstore, from strip mall to strip mall, all within 10-15 miles of home: “I can dress however I want, and I never have to worry about running into someone I know!”). To gain that anonymity and that lower price tag, consumers drive right past their neighbor, the local merchant who is rapidly disappearing from the American scene. Meanwhile, “format” stores such as WalMart and Costco are beating market expectations quarterly because Americans bend over backwards for the best price, and simply don’t value the things that well-thought-out urbanism can provide.

These days, sidewalks are the exception, the town square is a quaint and nostalgic idea, and public benches and places to sit are discouraged. The neighborhood park often is an enormous tract of land on the outskirts of town; some might drive there, but no one really owns it. Where, in today’s communities, are the places that parades are held and speeches given? Where is the special nook for young lovers to become engaged to be married? Where can neighbors be neighbors to one another, and where can rich and poor walk down the sidewalks as fellow citizens?

* * *
In terms of economic justice, there are in many communities, regulations and zoning laws that keep out the poor and working class. Some affluent counties currently prohibit developers from building a house smaller than 1200 square feet, or on a parcel of less than an acre. This drives housing costs so high that teachers, police, and postal workers—especially in large metro areas—cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. Minimum-wage workers are encouraged to commute long distances by public transportation just to serve in restaurants and offices. The Bible shouts its message of respect for the poor: “Do not scorn the poor man.”[iii] It would seem clear, then that design that scorns the poor and facilitates the rich is unbiblical. Does this pattern grow out of a sinful dislike and distrust of people with lesser standing?
* * *

Legalize Drugs

William Buckley suggests, not for the first time, that laws against marijuana are counterproductive, and that marijuana should be treated as alcohol: Taxed, regulated, but not prohibited. I'm not an expert on drug policy -- far from it -- but I'm inclined to agree.

"But people would take things that harm themselves," runs the main objection. Well, so what? People do all sorts of things already that put themselves at risk of harm. They smoke, they drink, they eat fatty foods, they watch TV rather than exercise, they go skydiving or bungee jumping. Why spend billions of dollars throwing people in jail for doing something that is likely less harmful than driving a car? (Recall that 47,478 people died in 2002 in vehicle accidents, while 11,965 died from alcoholic liver disease and 29,737 died from guns.)

The real reason that I don't pay more attention to this, to be perfectly frank, is because I don't want to be associated with the sort of people who usually support legalization, i.e., those who are motivated by personal habits. I've never even tried a cigarette, let alone drugs of any kind.

Thomas and Scalia

Will Baude has an article in the New Republic detailing the substantial differences between Justices Thomas and Scalia. A useful piece for countering the inexplicable myth that Thomas does nothing but follow Scalia's lead.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004


Neal Whitman asks what you would call a machine that makes ATMs? An ATM machine? Oops, too many people already say "ATM machine" when they really mean "ATM," as if it somehow didn't suffice that the "M" already stands for "machine." Whitman looks at several similar examples (i.e., "PIN number"), and offers a theory as to why people like redundancy in acronyms. Item one: "They [the acronyms] all end in a nasal consonant (M or N)."

There's a problem with this, though: The commonly-used phrase "HIV virus," which turns up 404,000 hits on Google. What accounts for this example of redundancy, heard throughout the USA of America?

Dallas Morning News

Don't miss the Dallas Morning News' important series on the international aspect of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal. The links to each article in the series can be found here, and a multimedia presentation can be found here. From the summary:
Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children are hiding abroad and working in church ministries, The Dallas Morning News has found.

From Africa to Latin America to Europe to Asia, these priests have started new lives in unsuspecting communities, often with the help of church officials. They are leading parishes, teaching and continuing to work in settings that bring them into contact with children, despite church claims to the contrary.

The global movement has gone largely unnoticed -- even after an abuse scandal swept the U.S. Catholic Church in 2002, forcing bishops to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy and drawing international attention.

Starting this week and continuing in coming months, we report the results of a yearlong investigation that reaches all six occupied continents. Key findings include: Nearly half of the more than 200 cases we identified involve clergy who tried to elude law enforcement. About 30 remain free in one country while facing ongoing criminal inquiries, arrest warrants or convictions in another.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Sentencing Guidelines

So a defense lawyer doesn't like the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. This is news on the level of "dog bites man." Almost no one -- including most federal judges -- likes the Sentencing Guidelines.

What's of interest is where he tries to place the blame. He wants very much to blame Ronald Reagan for signing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which created the Sentencing Guidelines. But he knows that he can't quite get away with that, because the Guidelines were heavily promoted by none other than Ted Kennedy (as I've previously pointed out).

So he blames Reagan for his appointments to the Sentencing Commission.
In fact, the problem was not so much the Sentencing Reform Act itself, but the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Commission that the act created. Reagan's appointments to that commission, which actually promulgated the provisions that became law, were an unmitigated disaster. As Federal Appeals Judge Jon O. Newman wrote in 2002, "Those who supported the 1984 Act, myself included, expected a Sentencing Commission composed predominantly of individuals experienced in the administration of public policy in general and criminal justice in particular." But, Judge Newman continued,
To the surprise of the Act's supporters, President Reagan named three professors to the first Commission, two from fields other than law. Our surprise at the composition of the Commission was soon surpassed by astonishment at the first draft of the Commission's guidelines, issued in 1986. Instead of the flexible system contemplated by Judge Frankel and others, the Commission ... proposed a rigid, highly detailed structure, which, with only slight adjustments, became the guideline system in place today.
In the end, this rigid inflexibility is the true legal legacy of our 40th president. To Reagan, all criminals were reprobates, and compassionate justice was an oxymoron.
Well, this is an interesting objection. The article doesn't mention that among Reagan's nominees was Stephen Breyer, who has since moved on to a higher occupation. Not only was Breyer on the Commission, he took a leading role. As this biography puts it:
Working from a statistical compilation of average prison sentences, Breyer created a complicated grid that federal judges were required to use to guide further sentencing. Many praised this solution for standardizing rather than rethinking sentencing, and for showing restraint appropriate to a judicial effort. Others complained that "average" sentences inaccurately reflected the range of considerations that led judges to impose much shorter or longer prison terms. All agreed, however, that the effort confirmed Breyer's ability to build consensus and his commitment to rationalizing regulatory solutions. In 1989 the Supreme Court registered its own approval by upholding the constitutionality of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the landmark separation of powers case, Mistretta v. United States.
Not only that, Breyer helped draft the Sentencing Reform Act itself. As Stuart Taylor said on PBS:
He had an important hand both when Congress drafted the Reform Act in 1984 -- he was the senior staffer on the Judiciary Committee, working for Sen. Kennedy, who had a very important role in drafting them -- and then he was one of the first members of the sentencing commission and had a very important role in drafting the guidelines, themselves.
By the way, in that decision in Mistretta v. United States, there was only one dissenter: Reagan-appointee Antonin Scalia.

The author ultimately admits that "[i]n the years following the Reagan administration, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, the Sentencing Commission and the Congress continually stiffened the punishment for offenders, particularly in the area of white-collar crime." It's difficult to see how all the blame goes to Reagan if the real complaint is that Congress increased minimum punishments after Reagan, including under Clinton.


Almost a year ago, I posted a list of the books that I had read that year. This year's list is longer than last year's, probably because I actually kept a list this time:


William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience

Hadley Arkes, The Philosopher in the City: The Moral Dimensions of Urban Politics

Hadley Arkes, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose

Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds

Jerry Fodor, In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind

H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law

Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language

William Lycan, An Introduction to Philosophy of Language

Thomas V. Morris, ed., God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason

Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief

John R. Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind

J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane, Atheism and Theism

David Stove, Scientific Irrationalism

Various social issues

Bob Briner, Roaring Lambs

J. Budziszewski, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide

Allen Carlson, The "American Way": Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity

Ann Coulter, Treason

Kenneth Craycraft, The American Myth of Religious Freedom

F. James Davis, Who is Black? One Nation's Definition

Jayna Davis, The Third Terrorist: The Middle East Connection to the Oklahoma City Bombing

Ronald Dworkin, Life's Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom

David Frum & Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror

Maggie Gallagher, The Abolition of Marriage

Maggie Gallagher, Enemies of Eros

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

F. Carolyn Graglia, Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism

Lawrence Otis Graham, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class

Victor Davis Hanson & John Heath, Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom

Carson Holloway, All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics

Peter Huber, Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists

Eric Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith

James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Mark Gavreau Judge, If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture

Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism

Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Frederica Mathewes-Green, Real Choices

Charles Murray, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government

David G. Myers, Pursuit of Happiness

John U. Ogbu, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement

SuDawn Peters, Hidden for Glory, Destined for Adoption

Richard Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Story of Decline

Rita James Simon & Rhonda M. Roorda, In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories

David Sucher, City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village

Beverly Daniel Tatum, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race

Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences

Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible

Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Raymond A. Winbush, ed., Should America Pay? Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations


Albert Borgmann, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology

G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works Vol. 28, The Illustrated London News 1908-10

G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works Vol. III, The Well and the Shallows; The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic; The Catholic Church and Conversion; Where All Roads Lead; The Way of the Cross

G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works Vol. V, The Outline of Sanity, The End of the Armistice, Utopia of Usurers

Deal Hudson, An American Conversion

John Lawlor, C.S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections

C.S. Lewis, Letters

C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress

Michael McConnell, et al., eds., Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought

D.G. Newcombe, Henry VIII and the English Reformation

Michael O'Brien, A Landscape with Dragons

Joseph Pearce, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church

Leon Podles, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity

Gerald L. Schroeder, The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth

Randall Sullivan, The Miracle Detective

Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God


Scott E. Kasner & Philip B. Gorelick (eds.), Prevention and Treatment of Ischemic Stroke

J. Crayton Pruitt, A Crusade for Stroke Prevention

Kenneth R. Kensey & Carol A Turkington, The Blood Thinner Cure

Christian Wilde, Hidden Causes of Heart Attack and Stroke


David Baldacci, Last Man Standing

Ted Dekker, Three

Ted Dekker, Heaven's Wager

Ted Dekker, Thunder of Heaven

Ted Dekker, When Heaven Weeps

Greg Iles, Mortal Fear

Greg Iles, The Quiet Game

Greg Iles, 24 Hours

Greg Iles, Dead Sleep

Greg Iles, Sleep No More

Greg Iles, Black Cross

Greg Iles, The Footprint of God

Michael O'Brien, Plague Journal

Michael O'Brien, Empire of the Sun

Michael O'Brien, Father Elijah

Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness

Frank Peretti, Piercing the Darkness

Frank Peretti, Prophet

Keith Robertson, The Money Machine

Keith Robertson, The Crow and the Castle

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Words and Children

I had seen this study that Joanne Jacobs cites, but something struck me as amiss:
"Research has shown that greater verbal interaction between parents and young children improves students' performance on standardized tests," Farkas says. "By the age of three, professional parents had spoken an estimated 35 million words to their children, working- and middle-class had spoken about 20 million words, and lower-class parents had only spoken about 10 million words."

These families differed not only in the total number of words spoken, but also in the number of different vocabulary words used in these conversations. These differences had strong effects on the vocabulary knowledge developed by the children in these families.

"By 18 to 20 months, the vocabulary growth trajectories of the children of professional parents had already accelerated beyond those of other children," Farkas adds. According to his research, there seems to be both a social class, and controlling for class, a Black-White difference in children's oral vocabulary growth from infancy to adolescence. Preschool vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading performance in early elementary school, and early elementary reading performance is a strong predictor of later school performance generally.
35 million words? By age 3? The math doesn't add up there. That amounts to 11.67 million words per year, or 31,963 words per day, or 2,283 words per hour for fourteen waking hours, or 38 words per minute.

So professional parents really speak to their children at the rate of 38 words per minute for every minute of 14 hours per day, every day until age 3? I don't believe that for a minute. No one talks that much.

Then I'm unsure about the purported difference between "professional" parents and "lower-class" parents. I'd wonder if the real difference is the total vocabulary, as compared to the sheer number of words. That is, more educated parents might use a wider range of words, but aren't any more verbose. Conversely, maybe lower-class parents speak just about as much, but use a more limited vocabulary. These are just hunches, mind you; I don't actually know for sure what the facts are here.

UPDATE: I forgot that many parents put their children in daycare. Whatever the merits of this choice, they obviously don't have as much time to fit in those 35 million words. Doing the math, 35 millions words by three years works out to 224,423 words per week. If the parents see the children for 2.5 waking hours on weekdays and 14 waking hours on the weekends, that is only 40.5 hours per week. Allowing the parents half an hour per week of leisure time to themselves, they'd have to spend the other 40 hours speaking to their children at a rate of 5,611 words per hour, or 1.56 words per second, all at a non-stop pace.

Now maybe there are parents who spend every waking second talking like an auctioneer. But this can't possibly be the average.


Friday, June 11, 2004

Saudi Flights

An article from the St. Petersburg Times recounts how a plane carried three young Saudi men from Tampa to Lexington, Kentucky, on September 13, 2001, when most flights were supposed to be grounded. The Saudis then flew back to Saudi Arabia. They were accompanyed by a former FBI agent on the flight.

Several bits of info are interesting:
For nearly three years, White House, aviation and law enforcement officials have insisted the flight never took place and have denied published reports and widespread Internet speculation about its purpose.

But now, at the request of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, TIA officials have confirmed that the flight did take place and have supplied details.
** *
The Saudis asked the Tampa Police Department to escort the flight, but the department handed off the assignment to Dan Grossi, a former member of the force, Unger said. Grossi recruited Manuel Perez, a retired FBI agent, to accompany him. Both described the flight to Unger as somewhat surreal.
* * *
Perez, the former FBI agent on the flight, could not be located this week, and Grossi declined to talk about the experience.

"I'm over it," he said in a telephone interview. "The White House, the FAA and the FBI all said the flight didn't happen. Those are three agencies that are way over my head, and that's why I'm done talking about it."


An OpinionJournal author explains why she took up homeschooling:
As anti-Christian and officially godless as Baptists would find the excellently rated, wealthy and very white public elementary school in Montgomery County, Md., that my daughters attended last year, it eventually inspired in me a deep and abiding faith: I came to believe there was no way on, er, God's green earth that I could possibly teach my girls less than they learned in that school.
She cites a Department of Education survey that showed that nearly 49% of parents listed a "better education" as their chief reason for homeschooling. That was my parents' motivation: They sent me to public kindergarten, but found that a kid who regularly used words like "paleontology" didn't quite fit in. I still remember that one day the teacher lectured the class on how the letter "Q" was always followed by the letter "U." I remember thinking that she was wrong, because I had seen the article on "Qatar" while reading through the encyclopedia. In any event, homeschooling it was.


New Urbanism

Definitely worth reading and contemplating: Eric Jacobsen's article Lawless Prophet: James Howard Kunstler and the New Urbanist Critique of American Sprawl. An excerpt:

Before the Second World War, there were no retirement homes because a person could fully participate in our society without the necessity of operating an automobile. In most neighbourhoods, grocery stores, laundromats, barbers, and coffee shops were all within walking distance of homes. There were no "soccer moms" because ball fields were distributed among the neighbourhoods of a community, and kids could walk to them. Public spaces (parks, plazas, squares, and sidewalks) used to have priority in commercial and residential developments and gave a sense of harmony and order to distinct areas. Young and old used to enjoy informal contact in non-commercial public spaces because there were interesting places to walk and sidewalks upon which they could walk.

We've forgotten these things because we have spared no expense and made every allowance for the automobile and its seductive promise of mobility, power, and freedom. We've seen the promise of auto utopia unravel before us in the form of an endless sprawl of tract home developments, mega stores, and subdivisions. But we've been at a loss as to how to escape this decline because we have forgotten so much about how we used to build community on a human scale. We've settled for a kind of resigned acceptance of this dismal trajectory.

* * *

[Quote from Kunstler:]

Anybody who travels back and forth across the Atlantic has to be impressed with the difference between European cities and ours, which make it appear as though World War Two actually took place in Detroit and Washington rather than Berlin and Rotterdam. We barely endure the endless gridlock of suburbia, and wonder what is so deeply unfulfilling about the American dream. And having thrown away much of the past to attain it, our disconnection from other elements of human culture is nearly complete. (Home From Nowhere, 73)

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Public Radio

A sad, sad story from the Weekly Standard on how NPR has moved away from classical music and towards talk shows. As a youngster, I spent countless happy hours listening to our local NPR station's classical music programming. The first time I noticed a shift in programming was around the time of the Gulf War, when I was about 16. As I recall, the NPR station started running news for about 5 minutes every hour, on the hour. I was highly annoyed by this interruption, and I even suspect that it made classical programming more difficult (after all, classical pieces come in all different lengths, yet now everything had to fit neatly into 55 minutes). I have noticed a more dramatic move towards news over the years, now full-fledged programming that displaces classical music altogether.

I instinctually despise this shift. There is plenty of news available from all sorts of sources, including the Internet -- more news than it is healthy for a person to consume. Most of it is trivial, and 98% of it will be justifiably forgotten. (Pick up a newspaper from 20 years ago, and see how much of it is worth remembering.) But there is no good replacement for a free classical music source available to all citizens.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Unconstitutional Searches

Via Lawrence Solum, I see this interesting abstract:
Unconstitutional Police Searches and Collective Responsibility

University of Chicago - Law School

June 2004

U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 66
Criminology and Public Policy, 2004

Jon Gould and Stephen Mastrofski document astonishingly high rates of unconstitutional police searches in their forthcoming article "Suspect Searches: Assessing Police Behavior Under the U.S. Constitution" to be published in Criminology & Public Policy (2004). By their conservative estimate, 30 percent of the 115 police searches they studied violated the Fourth Amendment. The vast majority of the unconstitutional searches were invisible to the courts, having resulted in no arrest, charge, or citation. Focusing exclusively on stop-and-frisk searches, an even higher proportion - 46 percent - were unconstitutional. Moreover, 84 percent of the searches involved African-American suspects.
* * *
This is why I suspect that the exclusionary rule is perverse. The main defense of the exclusionary rule is that it somehow protects the innocent by proxy, by giving the police an incentive to behave. In reality, it looks like this defense is false. Perhaps there would be even more innocent people searched improperly if not for the exclusionary rule. Perhaps. But it seems that a lot of innocent people are searched anyway.

Whether it's feasible to give these innocent people a tort remedy against the police officers, I don't know. I wish it were so. Maybe they can console themselves with this thought: "Gee, if only I had been guilty, the police might have found some evidence. And then, if I had been prosecuted, I would have been able to throw the evidence out. How thrilling that would have been. But I'm innocent; so if I had mysteriously been prosecuted anyway, I would have been able to exclude this ill-gotten non-evidence from being presented. Or something."

UPDATE: Ampersand says that I have made a "very unconvincing argument" against the exclusionary rule. If one of the main purposes of the rule is to provide indirect protection for the innocent, what we would need to see is a study that examined the number of innocent people searched unconstitutionally both before and after the exclusionary rule was adopted (i.e., the 1961 decision of Mapp v. Ohio.) I don't know that such a study exists. From what I can tell, the exclusionary rule prevents successful prosection in about 1 percent of criminal cases, which suggests (but doesn't prove) that the police may not view the exclusionary rule as much of a deterrent. Then there is the fact, noted above, that innocent people are indeed unconstitutionally searched at a high rate. So I suspect that the exclusionary rule isn't doing all that much to protect the innocent.


On the Volokh Conspiracy, guest conspirator Michael Rappaport praises a lecture course on the Iliad and another course on the Odyssey, both taught by Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland.

Well, how about that. Back in 1993, she was at the University of Georgia, and was the professor who taught my Roman History honors seminar. I remember her as one of the best professors I've had, able to spark everyone's interest in Livy, Virgil, Apuleius, the battle of Cannae, etc. Her new courses should be worth checking out.

Health Care Costs

Brad DeLong says:
Two of the big things wrong with our health care system are (i) the enormous financial incentives HMOs and insurance companies have to figure out some way not to cover sick people, and (ii) cost shifting--the fact that those who buy insurance have to pay not only their own routine costs and their own catastrophic costs but the catastropic costs of others and the uninsured as well. The first means that--often--those who need health care the most have a hard time getting it. The second means that--often--those who could afford or would buy insurance if it were priced at its fair actuarial value don't because of this cost shifting.
Let's look at the first problem. After the fact, insurance companies have an incentive to figure out how to deny coverage. But this is true of all insurance policies. It's always a battle of incentives: When you are buying insurance, you have an incentive to pay as little as possible and to hide any risk. After some incident has already happened, you have every incentive to make the insurance company pay as much as possible.

And the opposite is true on their end. Every insurance company has an incentive to figure out how to argue that the car accident was really the other driver's fault, or how to argue that the death was really a suicide, or that the policy didn't cover acts of terrorism, or whatever. In many instances, of course, it is absolutely clear that the insurance company is required to pay. But in any case where there is room for doubt, the insurance company always has an incentive to try to avoid payment.

The thing that's important is the size of the incentive. There's a greater incentive to dispute a $100,000 heart surgery than a $100 checkup. And there's a greater incentive to dispute over cancer treatment than over a fender bender.

So it might indeed be a good idea to do as DeLong says in endorsing Kerry's idea, which is to have the federal government pay for most medical costs over $50,000.

On the other hand, this act in itself would create incentives. The thing to notice that is the federal government would only pay 75% of the bills above that amount. That's presumably so as to discourage the "moral hazard" problem wherein the insured person can demand more than is necessary or useful because he or she isn't paying the bill.

But will medical establishments create a 25% "discount" such that anyone can get the most expensive treatment paid for by the government? Many medical costs are incurred in keeping elderly people alive at a point when they might have died naturally. Not that I discount this; my own grandparents lived to their 80s, and I was immensely happy to have known them that long.

But they eventually died anyway. Indeed, all elderly people will die. Heck, all of us are going to die at some point. And the longer people are kept alive through artificial and expensive means, the more money it will cost. It sounds cold and cruel, but somebody has to make a choice that for certain patients, the treatment just isn't worth the money.

Don't believe it? As I've said, everyone dies. No amount of money, no style of insurance, will prevent that. So do we spend a trillion dollars keeping one person alive for a few months longer? No. How about a billion? No again. How about a million? Well, with medical treatment as expensive as it is these days, I wouldn't be surprised if this were the cost for a few people. But what if it was everyone in society being artificially kept alive for a few more months before death? There isn't enough money to spend a million on each person (that would be 280,000,000,000,000 dollars for everyone alive now). So there has to be some number where a rational person (not affected by sentimental involvement) would say, "Sorry, this person is going to die anyhow, and society doesn't have enough money to spend this much on every person."

So how would it affect incentives if hospitals and doctors figure out how to run up the bill keeping elderly people alive for that extra 3 months or 6 months?

CIA Competence

Mark Steyn has a scathing observation on the CIA's competence, as revealed in the infamous August 2001 Presidential Baily Briefing:
So that is the Agency's summation on Osama bin Laden as it stood in August 2001: two old television interviews, two generalities from foreign agencies, one rumour from the late 1990s, and a concluding assertion that demonstrates the CIA doesn't even know what the FBI's doing, never mind anybody else. Hard to see why it was ever "classified", as you could have picked 99 per cent of it from your daily newspaper. This would just about pass muster for an intelligence briefing in a small nation with no role in the world - Luxembourg, say. But, assuming that Luxembourg has an intelligence service, I'll bet it's paying a lot less for it than America is.

Junior High

Just noticed this story (via Evangelical Outpost) about a junior high school girl who was running a prostitution ring for money. Here is yet another example of the invaluable socialization that homeschooled children miss out on.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Some Ideas

I just chatted on the phone with my best friend from college. He was as full of interesting and thought-provoking ideas as ever. Consider:

1. What is the principle, if there is one, behind the choice of colors in the motto for "Google"?

As you can see, both Gs are blue. But the principle can't be that any letter always retains the same color, because the two Os are red and yellow. Perhaps there is some sort of sequence? But the sequence is broken: It starts off with blue, red, yellow. If the next G started another three-color sequence, the last three letters should be blue, red, yellow. But they're blue, green, red. Where the heck did that green come from? Perhaps if there was some sort of motto, there would turn out to be a longer 6-or-greater sequence in play. But we'll never know, with such a short sample size.

2. Why are there so many different last names? It seems only logical that last names should be perpetually ending. Some families die out because there aren't any children. Some families' only children die in accidents. In most American families, the female children will eventually get married and change their name, which means that their original family name dies out unless there is a male who has children. Hardly anyone actually creates a brand-new last name anymore. So on the very most optimistic assumptions, the supply of last names could only rise to the level of stability. In reality, the number of last names is likely on a steady decline.

So is there some future point at which everyone will have the same last name? Or is it only immigration that saves us from that confusing fate?

Misplaced Modifiers

From a Reuters story on Reagan's death:
Reagan's son, Michael, adopted during his first marriage to actress Jane Wyman, arrived moments after the president died after being caught in traffic, Drake said.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Some Friends

An accomplished welder in Colorado built an armored bulldozer for himself, then plowed through several businesses, then killed himself. Apparently he was angry over a zoning dispute. Look at the picture of what he built:

If you're wondering how he could see out of that thing, he did so via the three monitors that he had linked to television cameras mounted on the outside.

Now it's fascinating enough that he went to all that trouble. But what caught my eye were the comments made by "friends" of his:
A friend, Pete Mitchell, said Heemeyer was probably smiling when the vehicle, equipped with a TV camera for guidance, busted out of the side of a garage.

'That's the kind of guy he was,' Mitchell said, calling his friend 'vindictive.'
Another story found some other "friends" willing to go on the record:
While many people described Heemeyer as a likeable guy, others said he was not someone to cross. Christie Baker told the Denver Post that Heemeyer threatened her husband after he refused to pay for some muffler work.

Granby resident Nancy Healey had a friend who dated Heemeyer. "He did have a temper," she told the Post.
Yes, indeed. Usually temperamental people blow off some steam and then move on with their lives. I can't think of another example where an act of temper was pursued with such prolonged dedication.

Having grown up in the South, let me coin an expression: He was such an ornery ole cuss, even his friends didn't like him.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Nuclear Power

Various left-leaning bloggers are defending nuclear power (e.g., Mark Kleiman and Brad DeLong). Besides being vastly cleaner in terms of greenhouse emissions, remember that nuclear power would probably be much safer. For all the hysteria about accidents, no one has ever died here because of nuclear power. Whereas the main alternative -- coal mining -- is the most dangerous job in America. But the literal deaths of coal miners seem to count for less than the fact that a few people would incur a slight and hypothetical risk from nuclear power.

Chesterton on Religion

Chesterton notices the fact that religious disagreements are treated as somehow off-limits:
The Well and the Shallows (1935):

[A]s in many things, however, religion is treated in a curious manner, as distinct from politics or ethics or economics. Nobody says that because all political parties may be presumed to contain many well-wishers to the public good, therefore we must not resist Communism or attack Capitalism, or express our trust or distrust of Fascism. The roads which lead to different social solutions are recognised as divergent. It is only the paths to hell and heaven of which it is enough to say that they are paved with good intentions.

Chesterton on Blasphemy

Chesterton had written that there is no thrill or excitement over blasphemy unless there is a pre-existing belief in God to be threatened. For this he was criticized:
The Well and the Shallows (1935):

[T]he monomaniac solemnity of the Freethinker leads him to come blundering out with a very heavy club, against the blasphemer who has blasphemed the sanctity of blasphemy. He labours a ludicrous comparison, according to which saying, "there is no sense in blasphemy when there is nothing sacred to blaspheme" is no more sensible than saying "there is no sense in sanitation, when there are no enemies of sanitation to attack."

What has become of the reasoning power of atheists, I cannot think. This comparison is obviously rubbish; because sanitation is supposed to be useful whether it is opposed or no; and all I said was that blasphemy was not startling or thrilling unless there was something to which it was opposed. Whether secularism would be a good thing, when once established and unopposed, as sanitation is supposed to be a good thing when established and unopposed, was a question which I simply did not raise in that particular article at all. I only said that such a settled secular state could not enjoy eternally the artistic excitement of blasphemy; and this the secularist, after beating wildly about the bush is eventually forced to admit.

"What Mr. Chesterton ought to have said is that the defiance of God, the criticism of God, or ridiculing God, can only exist so long as men believe in God. That is quite true." That is also, as it happens, exactly what Mr. Chesterton said, and all that Mr. Chesterton said; and Mr. Chesterton is very much gratified to learn that it is also what he ought to have said.


Compare the last names of the two Pakistani fellows in these two respective stories:

More than a year before 9/11, a Pakistani-British man told the FBI an incredible tale: that he had been trained by bin Laden’s followers to hijack airplanes and was now in America to carry out an attack. The FBI questioned him for weeks, but then let him go home, and never followed up. Now, the former al-Qaida insider is talking.

In March, 2000, Niaz Khan said he was down and out, waiting tables in a curry house north of London, overwhelmed by gambling debts and increasingly drawn to the message of a radical local imam. The imam extolled Osama bin Laden and the rewards of dying for jihad.
Then, one night, outside a casino in Manchester, England, Khan said two mysterious men approached him. “First they say, ‘We can help you,’" recalls Khan. "I say, ‘How can you help me?’ Say, ‘OK, come sit in car.’ Said ‘Do you heard Osama name’?”

Khan, now 30, said the men told him they were working on behalf of Osama bin Laden, knew all about his background and gambling debts — information presumably gleaned from his fellow mosque members — and offered to teach him the ways of jihad.

They gave Khan several thousand dollars and flew him to Lahore, Pakistan, where he waited for instructions in a local hotel. He says that bin Laden’s followers then drove him, blindfolded, to a nearby safe house.
And this recent story from Louisiana:
When Mohammad Jamal Khan pleaded guilty to trying to evade the requirement that large cash transactions be reported to banks and the government, federal prosecutors added an unusual caveat to his plea agreement: There would be no immunity from possible prosecution in the future for crimes relating to Sept. 11.

Khan, a Pakistani national, admitted wiring $9,999 to a bank account in Pakistan in 1997. It was part of efforts by another man to get $50,000 overseas, prosecutors said.

"In no case does the U.S. Attorney... agree that there will be no prosecution of the defendant for any crimes concerning the hijacking of any airline or attack on any building or death that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001," said one paragraph in Khan's 2002 plea agreement. "The U.S. Attorney is simply not aware of the involvement by the defendant in these crimes at this time."

* * *
Looks like the latter Khan skipped town and one of the witnesses against him suddenly became deathly ill:
A dentist who claims he met three of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Shreveport one year before the attacks has mysteriously fallen ill and is on life support.

Dr. David Graham was driving back to Shreveport from Houston on Saturday night when he became sick. A friend said Graham began suffering organ failure and medical tests show possible poisoning. He is hospitalized in Houston.

Graham is trying to publish a book that claims meetings with the hijackers and another Middle Eastern man who is a federal fugitive here.

Mike Sledge, a friend of Graham, has a manuscript of Graham's book, "The Graham Report: The true story of three 9-11 hijackers who were reported to the FBI 10 months before 9-11." In it, Graham claims he met the hijackers at a home in Shreveport in September 2000 and thought they were plotting an attack on Barksdale Air Force Base. He said he reported them to the FBI.

* * *

Graham also knew Jamal Khan, a Bossier City man who was convicted of trying to hide his wiring of $9,999 to his native Pakistan.
* * *
Graham was scheduled to testify against Khan at a deportation hearing that was postponed because of a crowded docket. That hearing had not been held when Khan skipped town after federal authorities moved to put him back in jail for violating probation on the financial crime conviction.
Coincidence? Who knows.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Sandefur on Satisfactory Explanations

In a recent post, Sandefur demonstrates his open-mindedness on the subject of the supernatural:
Magical explanations aren’t really explanations at all; they simply move the Mystery to a higher shelf. * * *
Richard Dawkins: “If you’re allowed just to postulate something complicated enough to design a universe intelligently…[y]ou’ve simply allowed yourself to assume the existence of exactly the thing which we’re trying to explain…. You’re simply not providing any kind of explanation at all.”
This argument is wrong. An example: John Smith is dead of a head wound in a cabin in the woods. Someone posits that some unknown person must have killed him. The response: "But that isn't an explanation at all, because now we just have the mystery of who the unknown person is and why that person would kill Smith. Therefore, an unknown person couldn't have been involved."

Wrong. You can explain one thing on one level, and still be left with a mystery on another level. If John Smith really was killed by some unknown person, then that is the explanation for his death. We might now need an explanation for the unknown person, but that is an entirely separate question.

Let's generalize: Suppose that we see the phenomenon Y happening. Someone says that X must be the cause. It is absolutely, totally, and completely beside the point to say, "But we don't have an explanation for X itself." So what? That's no basis for ignoring X. If X is the cause of Y, that's just the way things are. It would be nice to have an explanation for X too, but we can know that X caused Y even if we don't know (yet) that W caused X.

The same is true here. Assume that God really did heal someone. If that happened, then it might be a mystery why God exists, and why God would heal her and not someone else. But that doesn't change the fact that -- by the very assumption of this hypothetical-- God's healing is the proper explanation for why the person was healed. The fact that a mystery remains doesn't undermine the fact that there IS an explanation for her healing.

The source of the confusion is that Sandefur and Dawkins seem to rely on a principle akin to this: "Nothing can count as an explanation unless it explains everything, without pointing to anything that is currently unexplained." But there is no reason to think that this principle is true. Indeed, they wouldn't accept this principle if the explanations involved were naturalistic. No one would say, "You can't rely on the existence of dark matter to explain the movements of stars, because that just pushes the mystery to another level." No: If dark matter causes the motion of stars, then that's the way things are, whether or not we currently understand all there is to know about dark matter.

Or perhaps the confusion arises because the unstated principle is this: "Nothing outside the scope of my knowledge or understanding can possibly exist. Thus, if something is offered as an explanation but points to something I can't fully understand, it must be false." Again, there's no reason to think that this principle is true. No one is guaranteed that they will personally understand every explanation of everything that ever happens.

Or another variant: "No explanation is true unless I find it satisfying. I find it very unsatisfying to be told that something -- anything -- might be due to some supernatural cause that I might not be able to understand." Again, not true. The world has not constructed itself around our desires, and there is no reason whatsoever to think that all truths must be satisfying.

Now, one can think of many possible supernatural explanations that are absurd and untrue. Those whose mind runs to the absurd will respond with something like this: "Ah, but are you really saying that I can 'explain' the rain by saying that it was caused by invisible fairies?" No. Neither I nor anyone else has ever implied that every phenomenon should be slapped with a supernatural explanation willy-nilly. As it happens, the fairies-causing-rain explanation doesn't work. But why? Not because fairies themselves haven't been explained satisfactorily. The reason this explanation doesn't work because there's no evidence that there are fairies or that they caused the rain in the first place. There and there alone is where a supernatural explanation might fall short.

And indeed, most or all explanations might happen to fall short there. But if there were evidence of fairies, no matter how slight, it would be silly to dismiss that evidence on the grounds that fairies can't cause anything unless their existence has been fully explained.

UPDATE: Sandefur has responded, with his main idea being that a true explanation shouldn't be adaptable enough to cover all conceivable possibilities. Here's a sampling:
But that answer could be applied to Y and not-Y equally. What we want to know is why Y happened instead of, say, Z, which did not happen, but which, had it happened, could be explained with equal plausibility by appealing to God’s will. Statement Q is worthless unless it is at all possible to say not-Q.

* * * What I’ve said -- and so clearly that I can’t really think Buck misses it by accident — is that nothing counts as an explanation if it explains everything. Buck’s “It’s Magic!” answer would explain every conceivable alternative state of facts. It is therefore worthless as an explanation.
So how about natural selection (and variants such as sexual selection, kin selection, and pleiotropy)? It could equally be charged with explaining "every conceivable alternative state of facts." Example: Why do humans have eyebrows? Because a) natural selection selected for organisms who kept sweat out of their eyes; or b) because sexual partners liked eyebrows for some reason; c) because there was some other preferable gene that happened to correlate with having eyebrows; or d) because having eyebrows somehow helped the rest of the group to survive.

But what if we didn't have eyebrows? The answer would be nearly the same: Because a) natural selection selected for organisms who are more aerodynamically streamlined; or b) because sexual partners liked smooth foreheads for some reason; c) because some other gene that eliminated eyebrows must have been selected; or d) because not having eyebrows somehow helped the rest of the group to survive. You could repeat this process of hypothetical explanations for every conceivable quality: We have large heads because big brains were an advantage. But if we had small heads, it would be because smaller heads were easier on the birth canal, or the like. No matter what happens, some variant of natural selection can be brought in to explain it.

Now does that mean that natural selection doesn't count as an explanation? Of course not. If the actual fact is that humans who had eyebrows were selected -- for whatever the reason -- then by definition that is what happened. That is the immediate cause, no matter whether natural selection could be brought in to explain the opposite as well. An explanation might be extraordinarily flexible -- but true nonetheless.

Same goes for the supernatural. I know it is awfully hard to use the imagination, but imagine that God really does exist and that he really did heal someone. If that actually happened, then that is the only true explanation. Period. It is absolutely irrelevant that someone else could proffer God's inaction as "explaining" someone else's continuing sickness. That's what I continue to say that the only legitimate objections here are that 1) God doesn't exist, or 2) God didn't act in some particular instance.

FURTHER UPDATE: Read Jeremy Pierce's analysis.

Chesterton on the Gospels

G.K. Chesterton, The Way of the Cross (1935).

If the Gospel description of the Passion of Jesus Christ is not the record of something real, then there was concealed somewhere in the provinces ruled by Tiberius a supremely powerful novelist who was also, among other things, a highly modern realist. I think this improbable. I think that if there had been such a uniquely realistic romancer, he would have written another romance, with the legitimate aim of money; instead of merely telling a lie, with no apparent aim but martyrdom.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Can Movies Teach Moral Philosophy?

That's the title of a New York Times article. I don't understand all of the author's thesis, but this paragraph seemed right on:
Mr. Cavell argues that in American comedies of the 1930's and 40's the genre changed. The couple begins by being married and then splits up -- or fails to recognize their affinity -- until they are properly reunited in marital friendship. These comedies tend to end in the country rather than the city, and authority tends to remain unacknowledged. Mr. Cavell calls these films 'remarriage comedies.'
Remarriage comedies. That's a perfect description for several films that the article doesn't mention. For example, Hitchcock's one comedy: Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Then there are Cary Grant's hilarious movies My Favorite Wife and The Awful Truth.